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Lives of the Poetsby Michael Schmidt
The third poet at the table was Seamus Heaney. Born in the north of Ireland, he has complained of being "force-fed" with "the literary language, the civilized utterance from the classic canon of English poetry." At school, poetry class "did not delight us by reflecting our experience; it did not re-echo our own speech in formal and surprising arrangements. Poetry lessons, in fact, were rather like catechism lessons."
He has tempered his views since he wrote of the "exclusive civilities" of English. At the round table he declared that the colonial and post-colonial argument is "a theme; it's a way of discoursing about other things, to talk about the language. It's a way of talking about being Protestants and Catholics without using bigoted, sectarian terms, it's a way of talking about heritage. But the fact of the matter is that linguistically one is very adept." He remembers as a child with "the South Derry intonation at the back of my throat" being able to hear, as he read, even though he could not speak it, the alien and beguiling intonations of P. G. Wodehouse. Language can be a medium of servitude; but it can also — properly apprehended — become a measure of freedom. "A great writer within any culture changes everything. Because the thing is different afterwards and people comprehend themselves differently. If you take Ireland before James Joyce and Ireland fifty years afterwards, the reality of being part of the collective life is enhanced and changed."
The fourth poet, the Australian Les Murray, is a witness to the abundance of the English language and to the freedoms it offers. Born in 1938 in Nabiac, rural New South Wales, he was an only child and grew up on his father's dairy farm in Bunyah. His mother died when he was a boy. In solitude he developed a close affinity with the natural world. Australia is a predominantly urban society; Murray is thoroughly rural. In 1986 he returned to Bunyah to farm, to live with the poetry of gossip, what he calls "bush balladry," and to work for "wholespeak." He takes his bearings, emblematically, from Homer and Hesiod: the arts of war and of peace (Hesiod's Works and Days embodies the principles of permanence, while the Odyssey with its endless wandering and a world subject to strange metamorphoses, and the Iliad with its sense of social impermanence and conflict, illuminate the principles of change).
A voice exists for every living creature, human or beast. It is one of the poet's tasks to listen and transcribe: the voice (the diction, syntax and cadence) of the cow and pig, the mollusk, the echidna, the strangler fig, the lyre bird and goose, the tick, the possum, "The Fellow Human." The past is included in the present, and the fuller its inclusion, the less likely relegation will be. Murray works toward an accessible poetry, telling stories, attempting secular and (he is a Roman Catholic) holy communion. An anti-modernist, he might respond to Ezra Pound's commandment "Make it new": "No, make it present."
Four writers in English with different accents and dialects, detained in a small recording studio in Dublin, deprived of the big match, all more or less agreeing on the integrity of their art, its place in the world, and on the continuities that it performs. Released at last (the match, alas, was over), the poets returned to Dun Laoghaire for dinner. Their conversation was raucous: a competition of salty tales and limericks ("There was a young fellow called Dave / Who kept a dead whore in a cave"). Neighboring tables tutted and simmered, and a literary critic from Belfast in her indignation reported the poets' boisterous manners back to the Times Literary Supplement.
A time has come to speak unapologetically for a common language and to speak a common language of poetry. Almost.
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